BRATTLEBORO — Although plans for the Putney Road Improvement Project haven't taken as long as the Brattleboro-Hinsdale Bridge re-do, many locals wonder if this is another grand idea that may never happen.
Will it be like New York City's Second Avenue subway, which officially opened on New Year's Day, 2017 - 100 years after its inception?
Or, will the dream of near-seamless travel up and down Brattleboro's busy northern strip actually come true?
It's hard to say right now, because the project is still in the planning phase, but there are signs of progress.
Ken Upmal, roadway-design project manager with the Vermont Agency of Transportation, appeared at the May 2 Brattleboro regular Selectboard meeting to provide an update on the plans, and to ask the Board to get on board.
Selectboard Chair Kate O'Connor pointed out that because Putney Road is a state highway, this is a state project, which will use state - not town - resources.
Upmal was joined by representatives from Green International Affiliates, Inc., a civil and structural engineer firm based in Massachusetts. They passed around copies of the new Putney Road plans, gave a presentation, and answered questions. Afterward, Board members unanimously voiced their support for the project.
Green International is working on the revised conceptual design for the 1.25-mile length of Putney Road that runs between the West River Bridge and Crosby's Brook, just south of the Exit 3 roundabout.
“This design promotes the safety of this corridor” for drivers, bicyclists, and pedestrians, said Upmal, who added, “it's more practical and less intrusive” than the previous plan.
As Upmal explained, Green International is a nationally-renowned expert on rotaries. They'll need that expertise: The Putney Road design includes four new roundabouts.
Because the original plans were started before any of the current Selectboard members took office, and because he's been involved since the start, Upmal gave a brief history of the decade-old project. Eric Atkins, project manager with Green International, filled in some of the details.
The old plan
In the winter of 2006-2007, the AOT devised a “Putney Road master plan,” that received approval from the Windham Regional Commission, the Brattleboro Traffic Safety Committee, and the Selectboard.
The plan called for removing all traffic lights, and installing four two-lane roundabouts at Noah's Lane, Technology Drive, the Hannaford's/Colonial Motel intersection, and Black Mountain Road.
The proposal also widened Putney Road, giving it two lanes in each direction.
That plan had “a significant impact” on some of the existing businesses, Upmal said, mostly because of the roundabouts' footprints. Lost entities included the Brattleboro Savings & Loan's Black Mountain Road ATM, most of the Black Mountain Road Plaza's frontage parking spots, and approximately 76 parking spaces in the Hannaford's lot.
In 2008, the AOT's design consultants came up with a scoping study. The identified project goals included improved safety for vehicles, bicyclists, and pedestrians, improved traffic operations, and what the AOT calls “complete streets,” which integrate pedestrians, bicycles, and buses into the plans.
Then the AOT brought the project in-house. At that point, it fell apart due to what Upmal characterized as “many problems” with the “huge project.” It was shelved.
Recently, the AOT picked it back up again and sent out a request for proposals, reviewed the bids, and chose Green International.
The company reviewed the old conceptual plans, performed updated traffic analysis, and prepared a report, Atkins said. The goals of the review were to revise the design to meet current roundabout-design best practices, which, he said, “are evolving all the time,” and to minimize construction costs and effects on rights-of-way.
Shrink the rotaries, add turning lanes
The most dramatic - and welcome - change to the project's plan lies in the roundabouts.
Unlike the Exit 3 roundabout - Upmal's first rotary design - the proposed Putney Road roundabouts will almost entirely consist of one vehicular travel lane.
This will shrink the traffic circle's footprints, which satisfies Green International's goal of shrinking the intrusion on property owners' rights-of-way. Current plans call for BS&L to keep their ATM, the Black Mountain Road Plaza to retain their frontage parking spaces, and Hannaford's to keep 50 more parking spots than in the original plans.
Smaller traffic circles mean less blacktop, too.
Atkins said “there's a 1.6-acre reduction in paving from the old plan to the new one, which is better for maintenance and storm-water run-off.”
Creating single-lane traffic circles will also avoid a problem common to the Exit 3 circle: drivers who don't know how to use them.
Jason Sobel, traffic engineer with Green International, explained the benefit of single-lane roundabouts: there's “less confusion over lane choice, fewer crashes, and it's better for pedestrians.”
Sobel noted the plans include crosswalks “at all legs at all roundabouts,” which is also better for bicyclists. As the planners explained, experienced bicyclists can stay in the roundabouts' travel lanes; slower riders can share the sidewalks and crosswalks with pedestrians.
The traffic circles all include truck aprons, similar to the one where Park Place meets Route 30. These aren't meant for regular vehicular traffic, but allow trucks a safe section for navigating the circular roadway.
Each rotary also includes a center median with landscaping. Upmal said their purpose goes beyond aesthetics: They help with storm-water drainage.
One roundabout was relocated. After Green International analyzed the old plans, they determined the Noah's Lane rotary was unnecessary, and moved it to Fairfield Plaza.
The other notable change from the old plans to the new is the number of travel lanes. Most parts of Putney Road will remain single-lane in each direction, but a center turning lane will be installed in at least eight spots between the Marina and Fairfield Plaza.
The reason for these lanes is to prevent crashes. According to the transportation officials, accident data show rear-end collisions as a major problem on Putney Road, because of the combination of poor sight-lines from changes in road grade and the multitude of businesses along the highway.
Police and Fire Department officials in attendance nodded their heads in agreement when this point was made.
An important consideration of the plan designed to increase driver safety is access control, Atkins said. Direct, perpendicular access from the highway to businesses' driveways and parking lots creates opportunities for accidents. The new plans provide turning lanes, shoulders, and curb-outs to decrease speed when exiting the road.
Putney Road between Hannaford's Plaza and the Exit 3 rotary will have two travel lanes on the north-bound side, according to the current plans. Sobel said this is because the east side of the road has many driveways.
Providing a right-hand lane will mean fewer rear-end crashes from cars making quick, right-hand turns, Atkins said.
Most of the road will have sidewalks on both sides of the street, with a grassy strip separating them from the vehicular travel lane. Some crosswalks traversing Putney Road will have buttons pedestrians can push to engage flashing warning lights.
The exception is the portion between the canoe rental spot and the entrance to People's Bank. Because of a lack of need, and a rock ledge, the planners decided to forgo the sidewalk there.
Bicyclists will have 5-foot-wide bike lanes on the north- and south-bound sides of Putney Road, and some of the sidewalks approaching and surrounding the rotaries will be dual-use: for pedestrians and bicyclists.
A work in progress
“We still have some design refinements to do,” Upmal said, and the public should expect “lots of outreach to come.”
For example, the intersection at the Colonial Motel and Hannaford's Plaza still needs work, Atkins said, mostly to figure out how to accommodate the Current bus line, tractor-trailers, and other large delivery trucks.
Also, “the Marina area is a really tough nut for us to crack,” Atkins said, and detailed the challenges: trucks needing to turn, drivers' limited sight distance due to the incline, and the increase in the speed limit as drivers come north across the West River Bridge.
The new plans include a turning lane and a road-grade median to help southbound trucks make a right turn into the Marina's sharp driveway.
“We're still evaluating this for the best options,” he said.
“Reducing the [roundabouts'] footprint will make this go faster,” Atkins said, because of fewer rights-of-way and fewer permits.
Upmal said he is happy the project got delayed. The lag-time allowed for roundabout design to advance, and for the AOT to bring in Green International for refinements - and Upmal said he's happy about their alterations, too.
“This project is unprecedented in Vermont,” Upmal said.
When O'Connor asked him to explain, Upmal offered two words: “Four roundabouts!”
“We're ready to move forward with the project,” said Upmal, and the AOT has “an accelerated, aggressive schedule,” which includes coming up with a fully developed plan within a year.
After that - likely by the fall of 2017 and the winter of 2018 - comes the permitting process, including Act 250. After that comes the property-acquisition and right-of-way procedures, which Upmal characterized as the most daunting parts of the project.
“The greatest challenge to this project is the right-of-ways,” because they all involve commercial properties, said Upmal, who noted “every single abutting property owner will be met” before construction begins, and he has already spoken with some of them.
Any and all easements will be negotiated with property owners, who will be compensated, Upmal noted.
Selectboard member John Allen asked Upmal and the Green International representatives if their plans included modifying the Exit 3 rotary, because, Allen said, “it's awful!”
Although the transportation officials said Exit 3 wasn't part of their plans, Upmal said, “we can assess it for improvements during this process.”
O'Connor asked about the next opportunity for public participation. Allen told the transportation officials, “you're welcome to come back and make this presentation again. It's very helpful.”
“As plans develop, throughout the project, and into construction, we'll work with the town,” Upmal said. “We're attached at the hip!”